Beyond the Canvas
Paula Rego at Tate Britain, London
Coming out of this extensive and excellent survey, you get a strong sense that Rego's work is an intoxicating blend of the political and the personal, an intricate map of her identity both as a woman and as a Portuguese citizen. Grown up during Salazar's fascist dictatorship, Rego started calling out the regime's domestic and colonial abuses when she was only 19, by which time she had moved to the UK. Since then, she has never ceased pointing her finger at political and social oppression, with a particular preoccupation for the condition of women.
The large acrylic pictures from 1986-88 in the Love, Devotion, Lust section of the exhibition are perhaps the most iconic part of her oeuvre, and certainly the ones that better illustrate the sheer complexity and befuddling ambiguity of her subject matters. Rego explores the female role in patriarchal societies by painting young women interacting with people, things and animals in ways we cannot fully decipher. These pictures demand our attention, for what at first may seem like a peaceful scene, turns out to be downright terrifying. These characters look calm and then, as we look closer, they look evil, as if driven by an intense need for revenge.
For example, the women who are dressing/undressing/helping/manhandling/subjugating (does anyone know?) the man in The Family. Rego unleashes her fascination for storytelling, before this became an irritating buzzword, and shows us a scene with no beginning and no end, where symbolisms and narrative clues do nothing to shed light on what is actually happening. There is anger, there is pain, there is sexual tension. Brutality and tenderness blend into coded messages from the artist's subconscious that we are unable to make sense of. These works represent a sumptuous and harrowing visual manifestation of the Freudian uncanny where the familiar and the obscure come together in all their mystifying splendour.
At Tate Britain until 24/10 - not to be missed.
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All images © Paula Rego